Chicago is home to hundreds of works of Latinx public art that are both captivating and politically provocative. But there’s no good place to go for comprehensive information on where they are, who made them, or how they reflect the Latino experience in Chicago.
Jason Ruiz is changing that.
Ruiz has been awarded a Whiting Public Engagement Fellowship to create a set of walking tours and digital tools to explore Pilsen — the changing neighborhood at the heart of Chicago’s Latinx community — through its vibrant, historic murals.
Ruiz, associate professor and interim chair of the Department of American Studies, was one of just seven scholars in the U.S. to receive a fellowship this year through the Whiting Public Engagement Program, which seeks to empower humanities faculty who embrace public engagement and to amplify unheard stories and infuse complexity into public discourse.
“Winning the fellowship means the world to me,” Ruiz said. “It puts me in the company of incredible scholars who are working to engage the public with complex intellectual questions and gives me resources for building a project that will be far more sophisticated than I originally imagined.
“I want to give anyone, from serious scholars to casual tourists, the tools to discover the murals. We also want to give people a beautiful, engaging user experience that will do justice to the murals themselves. As a Latino scholar myself, it’s a great source of pride that Notre Dame and the Whiting Foundation are helping me do that.”
“I’m especially pleased that the Whiting Foundation encourages intensive collaborations between scholars and community groups and cultural institutions. Our budget will allow me to pay artists and cultural workers for their time — something that is pretty rare for scholarly grants.”
For the project, called Latinx Murals of Pilsen, Ruiz is partnering with the National Museum of Mexican Art and other organizations that are deeply rooted in the Pilsen community. But the origins of the project lie in his teaching at Notre Dame.
Ruiz began giving walking tours to his classes because he wanted students to see the diverse public art that adorns the streets of Latino Chicago. Then, five years ago, he began collaborating with Jennifer Parker, head of the School of Architecture library and co-director of the Historic Urban Environments Lab (HUE) at Notre Dame, to create digital tools documenting and disseminating information on the murals.
With initial funding from Notre Dame Research, the team is already collecting archival evidence related to the murals and planning an array of tools they will make available when they launch the project.
Ruiz, who is affiliated with the Institute for Latino Studies and the Gender Studies Program, is also currently teaching a class called Latinx Muralism in Chicago that will complete a digital inventory of the murals in Pilsen and begin conducting oral histories with the artists.
“First and foremost, the HUE team and I want to give anyone, from serious scholars to casual tourists, the tools to discover the murals,” he said. “We also want to give people a beautiful, engaging user experience that will do justice to the murals themselves. As a Latino scholar myself, it’s a great source of pride that Notre Dame and the Whiting Foundation are helping me do that.”